Why Do I Feel This Way?

Meditations on the passing of my father

"We do not grieve as those who have no hope. For if we believe that Christ died and rose again..."

Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, but it was not for the loss of Lazarus. Lazarus was only "asleep," and Jesus was about to awaken him. Why then? Jesus is "the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Him, though he be dead, yet shall he live..." My father is better off now than he ever was on earth. Why then? For my own loss? What loss? He's been mostly gone for a couple years now. Maybe it's just the irreversibility of it all.

Funerals are supposed to be sad. Or are they? Does the Bible say so? Mary and Martha were mistaken in their sadness. I know better. He has graduated, death has no permanent claim on him. Do I believe this? John's gospel is like that: always forcing us to confront the issues. I do believe it! I'm not sad for him. I'm not sad for me. It's all those other people, who don't understand. Jesus wept for the same reason. "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not." God Himself probably weeps over wilfull ignorance, people who don't know their own right hand from their left.

The funeral home is all fake. It's carefully designed to make you cry, the way thriller movies are designed to scare you -- but both are fake. There is a place for weeping with those who weep. When I interviewed at Azusa, the dean hypothesized a student who had gotten herself pregnant. That's a hard problem. I empathised and lost my composure, right there in the interview. The interviewers approved and subsequently made me an offer. But the syruppy music, the plasticized corpse, it's not real. There are enough real tears to go around, like when two of the three floral contributions came from my employer SBU (the third from my two sisters and me), like when 10-year-old Cody came back in tears from viewing the body; Cody plays with toy guns and "kills" his enemies, but he does not understand death. I don't need fake tears at a time like this.

Tom Pittman
2003 August 1+

The following are some remarks I prepared and would have said at the funeral, if they had made a particular place to say it (but they didn't, they only had "an open mic" for which this seemed inappropriate)...

I think I'm supposed to say what a warm, involved, and sharing father I had, the kind of best friend Dr.Dobson tells every guy to be. He wasn't. We had a very cerebral relationship. He was always doing something intellectual -- research, writing a book, teaching, or just reading. When I got older, I returned the favor. My father wanted to be an academic and raised me that way. I am now the academic he always wanted to be.

My father was peace-loving -- I think the modern term is "conflict-averse". I tried to learn that, but I did not succeed.

The most valuable inheritance I have from my father is a small set of pithy aphorisms, which I intellectualized and made the basis of my life:

"Experience is a hard school, but the fool learneth in none other."
I translate this into modern terminology: "Opium" (OPM). Some people expand the three-letter acronym into "Other People's Money" but I prefer the phrase "Other People's Mistakes": Analyze the successes and failures of other people, so you don't have to repeat the same blunders. In a larger and grander scale the proverb goes, "Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it." To the best of my ability, I have followed this advice all my life.

Two aphorisms came from a chess context. Chess was the only "sport" intellectual enough for him (and for me). He was an expert chess player and taught me how to play, but I was never very good. "The student is not above his teacher," Jesus said.

"When in doubt, push pawn."
In chess, advancing a pawn is forward progress, and I think I unconsciously made it a principle in all of life: move forward, don't stagnate or go backwards. Even small steps forward will get you somewhere eventually.
"Always check, it may be mate."
No wonder I never mastered the peace-loving thing! Check is an attack on your opponent's king. It forces him to defend his position instead of attacking back. I did not realize until this week, I do that. Is there a weakness in the other person's thinking? I probe, analyze, work out the implications, find the cause of failure. People hate to be shown up as wrong. I do too, so I work extra hard to catch (and fix) those errors before somebody else does. Chess is a zero-sum game: there is a winner and a loser. Real life is not that way. Usually there is a win-win solution. Most people don't know that. That's sad. "Always check" for a win-win solution, "it may be" possible, "mate."

One more, in the form of a story he told me.

Two motorists met in the middle of a one-lane bridge. One stood his ground. "I never back up for a fool!" he shouted. The other one replied, "I always back up for a fool," then promptly jumped into his car and backed up.
I have not always practiced this virtue, but it is both Biblical and empowering. The first guy depended on what the other guy would or would not do. It was the second guy who made the actual final decision what would happen on that bridge. He was in full control of the situation, while the first guy only thought he was in control. "He who would save his own life shall lose it."

This I learned from my father.

How better to honor your father than to follow in his footsteps.

See also "Meditations on the passing of my mother"